Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
CKM Dhananjai, managing partner and director of sport and governance, FC Madras (left) and Girish Mathrubootham, CEO and founder, Freshworks
Girish Mathrubootham is a big fan of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the former captain of the Indian cricket team. In 2019, when Dhoni was run out in the semi-final of the ODI cricket World Cup, sealing India’s exit from the tournament, Mathrubootham changed his flight tickets to go from Chennai to San Francisco, instead of London. “I had planned to go and watch the final at Lord’s [in London], but, instead, headed back to the US, to the Freshworks office,” he says.
What makes Dhoni stand out? “He is the X-factor, he finishes the game, you can depend on him to change the game, but he does it all with composure,” says Mathrubootham. “As audiences, we get frustrated if he doesn’t hit every ball, but Dhoni knows how to be most effective—which bowler to play out and whom to target.”
Just like his sporting hero, Mathrubootham, the founder of Freshworks, too knows how to be a game changer. In 2010, a random comment from a user on a tech website woke him up to the world of opportunities in software-as-a-service (SaaS). Freshworks, which he started up in Chennai in 2011, has now gone global, is listed on Nasdaq and has raked in $153 million in the quarter ended September.
A similar itch to get things done got the better of Mathrubootham again around 2016-17, when he would take his younger son for his weekend football games in Chennai. “At one of the grounds in Adyar, a dustbowl of sorts, you could see 80 to 100 children gathered to play. They were interested, and the parents were also interested enough to bring the kids, but there was no infrastructure,” he says. “Contrast this with the soccer grounds in the US and UK. When I’d visit these countries on work, I’d see so many public soccer grounds, but hardly anyone playing.”
It’s a contrast that weighed heavily on him. Despite being played in every other neighbourhood, just like cricket, India’s performance on the world stage has been dismal in football, with the men’s team currently at 102 in Fifa’s rankings. “Somebody has to create the right infrastructure in football to groom young talent,” he says. “I thought why not me?”
In 2018, Mathrubootham set up a public trust to back FC Madras, formerly the Mahogany Football Club, run by corporate executives Arindam Biswas and Joseph Vaz since 2006. On a plot in Thoraipakkam, on the outskirts of Chennai, they installed a turf and rented a hostel nearby to put the kids up. In the 2018-19 season, the club’s U-13 and U-15 teams became the Chennai Zone champions of I-League junior divisions. But Covid struck in 2020, the facilities had to be shut down and the kids were sent home. “During those two years, we ideated hard. I thought that when we finally come out of it, we must come out strong,” says Mathrubootham. “That’s when I decided to buy a plot in Mahabalipuram and set up a wo`rld-class football academy.”
Located about 4 km off the East Coast Road in Mahabalipuram, a 700-odd-km picturesque highway that connects Chennai with Kanyakumari, the academy sprawls over 23 acres and is constructed over a flattened watermelon field. Mathrubootham has pumped in `100 crore of his personal funds into building Phase I that was inaugurated last March, and houses three Fifa-approved fields, cutting-edge training and rehab facilities, and a residential programme with 61 young footballers from 14 states.
While Mathrubootham is based in St Mateo, the headquarters of Freshworks, and tries to visit the academy once every quarter—“FC Madras is my happy space,” he says—he leaves the operations to his trusted lieutenants: CKM Dhananjai (or DJ, as he is known), a data and analytics fiend who was part of the 2011 World Cup-winning Indian cricket team and now works with Mumbai Indians; Abhishek Yadav, the former deputy general secretary at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and COO of the Under-17 football World Cup that took place in India; and Venkatesh Shanmugam, former India player and former assistant coach of the national team.
“My first job was to get the right team on board,” says Mathrubootham. “Now, with the likes of DJ and Abhishek in charge, my involvement is to write a cheque and get out of the way,” he laughs.
But the Mathrubootham mantra of ‘world class’ has seamlessly rubbed off on the senior management. Says Dhananjai, the managing partner and director of sport and governance, FC Madras, “Girish always tells me that when he built Freshworks, he invested in the MacBook Pro and not tables and chairs. That analogy stuck to me. I am trying to apply that in football and invest in the right things as much as possible.”
FC Madras has locker rooms inspired by those of Southampton FC, goalposts from UK’s Harrod Sports, and advanced AI-based Pixellot cameras
FC Madras’s locker rooms, hence, are inspired by those of English club Southampton FC, goalposts are bought from UK’s Harrod Sports, the shopping destination for top academies, advanced AI-based Pixellot cameras slice and dice game data, while a sensor in the shoes of players, manufactured by Israeli company Playermaker, throws up 72 metrics for coaches to track performance. “IITs were built first and then the engineers came. The playbook has been defined that way,” adds Dhananjai. “We believe that by front-loading infrastructure, we will be able to carve out champions as we go along.”
All trainees at the FC Madras academy are awarded a scholarship irrespective of their economic background, and the programme is built solely on meritocracy. Scouts fan across states to watch young footballers for months, and cherrypick the best. “Selection is a multi-layered process. There are physical assessments, mental assessments, and we watch the boys over a period, which can sometimes go up to six months,” says Yadav, the CEO. Having played professionally for nearly two decades, he underlines the importance of early exposure—a step that comes before the selection. “We have to create opportunities for children to play first. That’s why we came up with the inaugural edition of the Madras Super Cup, an amateur football tournament that we launched in 2023,” says Yadav. Also read: We have the potential to nurture champions: Girish Mathrubootham
“From an Indian sport’s perspective, especially now with India wanting to bid for the 2036 Olympics, these setups have become critical, because kids who are 14-15 now will be our athletes in that Olympics,” says Deepthi Bopaiah, the CEO of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit venture working towards grooming Olympic and Paralympic athletes. “The idea of bringing in personal wealth and setting up a world-class centre for young athletes to have access to those environments is a game changer because we’re always falling short in terms of environment and infrastructure.”
Mathrubootham also wants to lay the foundation for a third key pillar at the academy—education. The world over, only a minuscule percentage of kids end up as professional athletes; the SaaS entrepreneur wants to ensure that those who fall by the wayside are well-equipped with education and life skills to become well-rounded individuals. Trainees at the FC Madras academy are schooled in the NIOS curriculum, and Mathrubootham has roped in management educator CN Narayana to coach them in life skills. “These skills put kids, who come from different backgrounds, on a level playing field,” says Mathrubootham.
Dhananjai draws from the wealth of experience he’s had spending decades with elite cricket teams. “In cricket, we have seen how players learn skills, like speaking to the media, over a period of time. We wanted to incorporate those into a footballer’s life right from the beginning,” he says.
As a part of that exercise and also to ensure the kids don’t grow up in their own bubbles, the academy sends them out to local villages with community initiatives like cleanliness drives. “Those few hours were a humbling experience,” says Nigel Binex, 17, who joined last year. His peer M Rishab Reddy, 15, says a recent gathering, where trainees were invited to spend a few hours in activities aside from their routine—football and studies—gave him the confidence to mingle with large crowds.
In 2024, FC Madras will launch its women’s football programme with Yadav and Venkatesh at the helm. “As we do in startups, we first focus on one minimum viable product and then make progress—like how I had to wait to launch Freshdesk before starting Freshservice. That’s why we launched the boy’s programme first and are now looking into the girl’s one,” Mathrubootham explains.
Apart from football, trainees at FC Madras are educated under the NIOS curriculum
Close to the end of year one, he is expecting a run rate of $1.5 to $2 billion as annual expenses to run the academy. Mathrubootham understands that, in future, he has to focus on sustainability and bring in at least a portion of the money as revenues. But he isn’t impatient. “You need to believe that you can make a change. If you do the right things, I am always optimistic the pieces will fall in place,” he says. Just like the early days of Freshworks—where naysayers scoffed at a SaaS company scaling up from Chennai—FC Madras, too, had its doubters. “Sometimes, you’ll just have to ignore logic and rationale and take one step at a time,” he says.
What Bopaiah of GoSports finds most commendable is that Mathrubootham isn’t merely eyeing a coveted prize—like an Olympic medal or a World Cup berth. “He’s saying he wants to nurture talent, and to give them a pathway to become professional athletes. He himself, as an entrepreneur, has seen that journey in just getting the opportunity to excel,” she says.
Much before PV Sindhu won an Olympic medal in 2016 and triggered a wave for badminton in India, says Mathrubootham, someone else had to believe that the tide would turn. “That guy was Pullela Gopichand—he mortgaged his house to set up his academy that has given us many top-ranked players. I’m just going with that mindset.”
“In the Freshworks IPO journey,” he adds, “I talked about dreaming in installments. If we talk about India winning the World Cup, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Our first milestone should be to be among the top five footballing nations in Asia. You have to work backwards and dream in smaller increments.”
In 2000, a pint-sized Argentinian walked through the hallowed portals of La Masia, the youth academy of Spanish club FC Barcelona, and emerged as arguably the most mesmerising footballer the world has ever seen. No surprises perhaps that he fashions Mathrubootham’s ultimate goal: To search for a ‘Messi from Madras’.